Born in Buffalo in 1950, Cowley spent most of his youth in northern New York and working in local rock bands. He studied at the University of Buffalo, with a concentration in English. In 1971, after a relocation to San Francisco College, he began an intensive study of the synthesizer. Shortly after his studies began, Cowley's work was noticed by a local musician, Sylvester, who asked Cowley to join him in the studio. Cowley's synthesizer innovations resulted in the album Step II, which made way for the global recognition of Sylvester and garnered Cowley a job as a touring musician. Slowly, his work on the synthesizer became synonymous with Sylvester's sound and was important in creating hits like "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," "Dance (Disco Heat)," and "Can't Stop Dancing."
Though touring with a band kept him far from home, Cowley remained close to the roots of the San Francisco club scene. In 1981, Cowley found kinship with Marty Blecman, a producer/keyboardist who had worked at Fantasy Records, a predominately jazz and rock label. The two formed their own label, Megatone Records
, in the summer of 1981. His first solo hit was the single "Menergy," which hit Billboard's club chart in late October the same year. In 1981, the first release on Megatone
was the single "Megatron Man," followed by a full-length album of the same name.
Cowley found more success in the '80s with several chart-topping hits. At the time he released "Megatron Man," he also teamed up with San Francisco singer Paul Parker
. Both wrote and produced the dance-oriented single "Right on Target," which reached the top of club charts. He found even more chart-topping success teaming up with Sylvester once again to produce the single "Do You Wanna Funk" for Megatone
. In 1982, Cowley produced his final album, Mind Warp, for Megatone
. That year also saw the official release of Cowley's remix of Donna Summer
's "I Feel Love," originally made years prior but previously unavailable commercially. He died of what became known as AIDS on November 12, 1982.
Blecman cites Cowley as patching his own programs by hand to create a certain sound that Cowley felt was necessary in order for a track to be complete. Initially founded as a partnership, Megatone Records
was incorporated in 1983 and moved to Hollywood, California in 1994. Blecman headed the record label until his death on September 20, 1991. Several Cowley-related anthologies were released over the course of the following decades, beginning with Catholic (a compilation of late-'70s recordings made with Jorge Socarras), a self-titled set by Indoor Life
(a group that released a Cowley-produced EP in 1980), and School Daze (adventurous '70s and early-'80s instrumentals Cowley gave to John Coletti, owner of Fox Studio, an outlet for gay pornographic films). The latter, released by San Francisco's Dark Entries
label, was especially well-received, and the label eventually reissued Catholic on vinyl and subsequently released Muscle Up (another volume of Cowley's previous unreleased porn soundtracks). Related label HNYTRX
also released Kickin' In, a 12" EP of previously unissued disco cuts, led by its 12-minute title track. Candida Cosmica, an EP of experimental pieces recorded in the '70s with filmmaker and sex educator Candida Royalle, was released in 2016. Afternooners, the third and final compilation of Cowley's soundtrack work, appeared in 2017. ~ Diana Potts, Rovi